Alex Len comes from what was maybe the worst draft in a decade. When Mason Plumlee, he of 7.4 and 4.4 rebounds per game, is a finalist for Rookie of the Year, it was a bad year for rookies.
While fellow rookie Archie Goodwin ran up the score on Sacramento with 29 points in the season finale, 7-1 center Alex Len had a much worse final game: 0 points, 4 rebounds in 12 minutes. This from the #5 overall pick in the 2013 NBA Draft.
I mean, if you're the 5th overall pick in the Draft and you're taller than 95% of the players in the league, you ought to be able to dominate. Or, at the very least, score a few points against a team missing their best center, DeMarcus Cousins, right?
Len finished with the worst PER on the team at 7.2, indicating that the average NBA player was twice as valuable as him this season (league average = 15.0 PER). Len made only 42.3% of his shots, nearly all of them within a couple feet of the basket.
Len did have a late start on the season due to the foot injury (stress fracture requiring surgery) in college, and only played 42 games. When he did return to the lineup, the Suns were in a playoff chase that went down to the very last game of the season, so a rawrawraw 20-year old rookie center was not going to get much time off the pine.
Still, he did what he could on the practice court and between games to show the coach he was ready.
"From the time he came in, after his ankle issues," coach Jeff Hornacek said of Len. "He did a great job of working hard."
A closer look at Len's shot chart shows he was fairly effective as long as he stayed right at the basket.
The kid's got skills. He's long. He's aggressive. Here's a nice step-through dunk of Len's this season.
Len was slightly below league average on shots at the rim, which is saying a lot for a rookie. Remember how Markieff Morris and even Goran Dragic were terrible at scoring at the rim as rookies but got a lot better in after two seasons.
"Both guys have a good feel for the game," Hornacek said of Len and fellow rookie Goodwin. "They will figure out the speed of the game. Those guys are two of the hardest working guys on the team. They are in there in practice every day, they’re in the weight room, they stay after."
But I won't take any more time sugarcoating Len's rookie season. It was bad. Real bad.
"It was frustrating," Len said of injuries impacting so much of the season. "But it is what it is. I'm looking forward, I don't look back."
The good news is that it's over.
This summer will be a big one for Alex Len. He certainly can't get any worse. Let's see him go to Summer League with a lot more rope, minutes and opportunity to succeed.
"I’ve always felt that the offseason between your first and second year is the biggest summer of your career," GM Ryan McDonough said of the rookies. "We knew we drafted two of the younger guys in last year’s draft and it was going to take time. You saw flashes of potential this year. Summer league will be big for them. It’s a big summer for those guys."
Len said he will stay in Phoenix this summer.
"It's going to be a huge summer," Len said in his exit interview. "Getting healthy, getting stronger, getting better. I'm going to stay here this summer."
"I just need to play a lot, I'm going to try to play as many pickup games as I can," he continued.
I could discuss his pros and cons, but all you need to do is look at his scouting report from college. It's all still true and all still relevant. In case you've forgotten, here it is.
Alex Len can get a lot better this summer. We didn't see that Alex Len this year - the one on the video from Maryland (at least, in the strengths section!). That Len was much more mobile than the one we watched in Phoenix. And most of that video was WITH playing with that stress fracture before he was shut down for surgery.
"The game was too fast for me this year," he said. "For me, the game just needs to slow down."
He's going to turn just 21 this summer and it generally takes big men longer to develop than little men, especially when recovering from injury. He's lifting weights and getting his mobility back as the ankles recover.
He has the benefit of offseason coaching from the staff that brought you Miles Plumlee, who'd logged only 55 minutes as a rookie for a team in a playoff chase. Len got 362 minutes, so there's a big plus.
He has the benefit of a coach who put every single Suns rotation player in a position to succeed this past year - he played to their strengths and hid their weaknesses. Hornacek can do that for Len too.
Len just needs to stay healthy, gain 20-30 pounds and mature into his NBA skill set. All that takes time and patience.
But once Summer League starts, the clock begins to tick.
One thing ESPN Insider/NBA scout Amin Elhassan said since day one, and repeated even before the preseason scrimmage in Flagstaff last September, is that Alex Len is not a natural fit in the Suns offense.
Len is more of a lumbering guy than gazelle. And in the Suns offense, he will always look slow by comparison. This is no Amare Stoudemire, though a Maryland blogger suggested as much last summer.
But he is really long, and really talented. Maybe he'll be a taller, slow-motion Amare who can dive to the basket and finish? Maybe.
More likely, he's more a Marc Gasol type with a good midrange range and eventually a good postup game. Except that Hornacek said guys hanging around the 15-foot mark clog the lane too much. He already moved the Morrii out of there.
So Len will likely be a close-to-the-basket guy who CAN step out, but spends most of his time near the hoop.
Does that fit the Suns offense and defensive schemes? I hope so.
Depending on your mood today, you're either thinking I'm dumping too much on Alex, or that I'm being realistic. I mean this article to be realistic.
Alex did not have a good season. He showed flashes of potential, and in a handful of games he made his mark. But he really is unpolished, and he needs to stay healthy for a while to break out of his shell.
I'm really hoping my post-Summer League score is an A, though.
Armed with three first round picks from 14-27 in the 2014 NBA Draft, the Phoenix Suns plan to use them in trades rather than on rookies to join Archie Goodwin and Alex Len next year.
With 48 wins under their belts this season, the Phoenix Suns have already moved beyond the 'get as young as possible' phase of the rebuilding process. From now on, it is about acquiring top-end talent rather than stockpiling rookies.
No one in the Suns front office feels like this past season was a fluke, or that the youth they already possess is likely to regress next season.
"We are not going to sit here as a team that didn't make the playoffs and say we're all set," Suns GM Ryan McDonough said. "There are some roster upgrades you can make. But I don't think there are any glaring holes that aren't filled if you factor in some internal improvement."
Add in the almost-certain return of 24-year old Eric Bledsoe and the continued maturity of mid-20s Miles Plumlee, Markieff Morris and Marcus Morris and you are already looking at six young rotation players on the rise in the coming seasons. And of those six, only Bledsoe will be on an expensive contract next season.
So would you really add three more rookies to that mix?
"I think it's unlikely that we'll bring in three rookies to the Suns," McDonough said. "With the success we had this year, and it's a good problem to have, it's tough to develop rookies and win a lot of games. If you look at the Rookie of the Year candidates, most of them are on teams at the bottom of the league. It's hard to do both."
Archie Goodwin, 19, showed a great deal of promise, but most of that was in the Summer League and during practices. He did not play much in the second half. Alex Len, 20, was injured for much of the first half of the season but played a bit in the second half as the backup center. Neither got more than 15 minutes per game.
McDonough discussed the options for those six picks in the next two years, and one of them was a new twist.
"I think if we do go in with the 14th, 18th and 27th pick," he said. "It's not likely we draft three guys and bring them to the Suns."
"Our preference would be to trade for a star," he said, just as he always has. In an ideal situation, the Suns would trade some of those picks for a top-10 NBA talent and start planning for deep playoff runs.
The second best option, short of acquiring a star, would be to package picks to move up in the draft for a better talent than is available outside the lottery.
"We could also draft a European player or two and leave them overseas," he said, as option #3.
If all those fail and the Suns can't move up, there's another way of moving out that just pushes the can down the road a bit.
"We could also trade our pick for future picks," he said. "And kind of spread the picks out."
There's something we hadn't considered before. Why bring in six rookies in the next 15 months to this team? No one really wants to do that. But there are other teams who want youth today, and they might be willing to trade today's mid-teens pick for tomorrow's potentially higher pick.
"You know we have three this year and potentially three next year." McDonough continued. "So we might spread them out a little. Lon did a great job of stockpiling picks and we added to that last summer. It gives us a great deal of flexibility going forward."
But the preference, of course, is to convert those picks into a star. That's always been the plan and will remain the plan going forward. Trading picks into future years only extends the Suns' flexibility if all else fails. You don't trade a 2014 pick for a 2016 pick unless all other options are off the table.
"We would like to retain as much of our core as possible," he said, "but if you look at our cap sheet, we have a lot of flexibility coming up. But we also have big decisions to make. How can you upgrade the talent? Or, how can you retain the talent you already have?"
Rather than six picks in two years, the Suns could benefit from having two picks per year for the next four years. That would allow them to always be able to trade a pick, and even picks in consecutive years. The NBA's CBA does not allow a team to go pick-less in consecutive years, so teams cannot trade consecutive picks unless they have more than one coming to them.
Still, the #1 priority is to acquire a star. The Rockets did it by getting James Harden two years ago, and then Dwight Howard last summer. The Warriors did it by acquiring Andre Iguodala last summer after having their own resurgent season in 2012-13.
"If we can use our draft picks in a package to get better, to get a veteran," McDonough said, "to get us from the upper 40s to the 50s and even the 60s, you know we'll do that."
McDonough concluded with a telling comment that the Suns are not just going to bring back the same exact team next year. They won't trust that everyone will come back with the same attitude and that making the playoffs is only about internal improvement. The Suns have 13 players under their control for next season.
But they are unlikely to bring back the whole team while just kicking a couple of draft picks down the road a bit.
"We could bring back all the guys," McDonough said. "But I think we'll make some tweaks and try to get better."
Report Cards for each player on the surprising 48-34 team, plus the coach and front office
So how awesome was it that Goodwin sacked Sactown in the team's final game this season? As far as grading goes, it's akin to killing his final exam. Although he definitely put an exclamation point on his rookie year with that 29 point career high performance, most of his season was much more sedate. Depending on how you want to look at it, Archie was a casualty of the Suns success.
In the end, there just wasn't a lot of spare playing time left over for a 19 year old rookie on a playoff contending team. That played into Goodwin having two quick stints in the D-League this season, one at the end of January and one in early February.
In five games (two starts) for the Bakersfield Jam Goodwin averaged 26.4 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. He shot a very respectable .494 from the field and .385 from three point range. He even shot .810 from the line on an impressive 8.4 attempts per game. The only real blemish on his record there was his 4.2 turnovers per game.
In a way, though, that's more cause for relief than a harbinger of future NBA success. I mean, really, what NBA player doesn't excel in that type of environment? See Marshall, Kendall.
But let's get back to the association. Here's a fun stat (now that we can make light of the hellish season just two years back).
In 2012-13 the Suns had seven players who finished with a WS/48 of 0.00 or lower (negative). Wesley Johnson, Hamed Haddadi, Kendall Marshall, Marcus Morris, Michael Beasley, Luke Zeller and Diante Garrett.
Yes, those guys were all on the Suns. What a cringeworthy collection of talent.
The magnificent seven combined to play 4,021 minutes for a net of -2.2 wins (2.2 losses).
Are you wondering where I'm going with this?
For the 2013-14 season Archie Goodwin had the lowest WS/48 of any player on the Suns... it was .018. Better than nearly half of the 2012-13 roster.
That he finished lowest on the team in this category isn't really a knock on Archie, either, it is just a testament to how every single player had a positive impact on the team.
Goodwin made 52 appearances during the season and averaged 10.3 minutes per game. The spot duty makes his 3.7 points per game look pretty anemic, so I'm going to focus on per36 numbers. His averages of 13.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals were pretty middle of the pack in terms of the team.
What stood out to me was where Archie was getting his shots and his success rate. Goodwin was second on the team in percentage of field goal attempts at the rim (.545) behind Viacheslav Kravtsov. He was getting more looks at the rim than Miles Plumlee and Alex Len. Then, by getting himself good looks Goodwin managed to tie Goran Dragic for best 2P% at .542.
Goodwin's biggest deficiencies were 3P% (.139), FT% (.673) and turnovers (3.0 - third worst on team). Not a surprise.
Basically Archie's stats are indicative of exactly what we expected from him this season.
Goodwin has flashed brilliance since I saw him in his Las Vegas Summer League debut in which he scored 13 points against the Portland Trail Blazers summer squad. What Ryan McDonough told me that day after the game still resonates with me as to what embodies Archie as a young player.
"Archie didn't shoot the ball very well (in college), that's an area he absolutely has to improve on, but he really knows how to get in the paint," commented McDonough. "He knows how to break down defenses and get to the basket."
What I saw in him that game translated to the NBA court as well...
Goodwin attempted a game high six free throws, making four, while displaying a mesmerizing combination of quickness and fluidity. Maybe graceful would be a fitting adjective?
That was the first time I saw him play in person, and I still think it embodies what he does fairly succinctly.
But in addition to the fluidity, I also saw some ferocity this season.
The best thing about these report cards is that all the writers here have total creative license to use any qualitative or quantitative methods they choose. Even the format is completely flexible. Maybe some will just be reviews and eschew my grading criteria completely. (Jim shakes fist)
In limited exposure Archie showed enough to give hope that he has the potential to grow into an effective player at this level. By all accounts he is a great teammate with an exemplary work ethic. He was even the consummate performer by leaving us wanting more after the season finale, but in the end he didn't do that much more than I expected. I think next year he'll have a better chance to crack the rotation, though, especially if he's in the gym shooting free throws and three pointers all summer. Maybe he can hit the weight bench, too. After all, he's only 19 and hasn't even grown into his NBA body.